Should the old AMPOL building be demolished?Posted: April 3, 2011
The key issue arising from the Elizabeth Tower Motor Lodge case isn’t that the building can now be demolished, but rather what’s proposed to replace it.
The former AMPOL headquarters building is noted for its dramatic circular staircase, but its claims to historical significance aren’t compelling. According to the National Trust:
Historically, it is of interest as a building that is designed in a style that appears to belong to the early modernist period of twenty years previously, and is by far the last major building designed in this tradition in Victoria. It is also of interest as the headquarters of one of the major petrol companies in Victoria, which were all undergoing great expansion at that time, and for originally incorporating a petrol station at the ground level.
So, it is the last building designed in a style that was already passé when it was constructed in 1958. And the fact that it was occupied by a major corporation – even a petrol company – shouldn’t be surprising for a building located in the city centre. That’s possibly fascinating, but it’s not the sort of history that justifies preservation when there are alternative uses for the site.
Appearance is always a very subjective topic, but to my eye and, it seems, many others, the staircase is interesting. It’s a sort of melange of Russian Constructivism meets Disney Tomorrowland. Some have labelled it (wrongly) as ‘iconic’. But as visually arresting as it is to the citizens of 2011, it’s neither architecturally nor historically an especially significant staircase.
In fact I suspect it’s much more attractive to contemporary sensibilities that it ever was in its day (would Robin Boyd have labelled the staircase Austerican featurism?). That however is not a compelling reason for preservation because ‘interesting’ looking buildings needn’t be in short supply – we can always build new ones, maybe even more interesting ones.
Stripped of the bunkum about ‘significance’, the streetscape would be no worse off if Elizabeth Tower were replaced by a building that is at least as visually interesting. And that brings us to the core issue – judging by the only picture I could find of it (see picture under fold), the appearance of the proposed replacement building is, to put it nicely, a little bland compared to that dramatic staircase. I’ve no reason to doubt the new building is a tour de force in all other respects and a credit to its designers, but it will inevitably be compared to its predecessor and on that score it appears somewhat underwhelming.
Melbourne University chose not to pursue the populist course of incorporating the staircase in the new building (maybe it could’ve been made into a double helix!?). There’s some logic to that – the new building has laboratories with floor-to-floor heights that are higher than those of the existing staircase. Another reason could be that the staircase is so dominant it would’ve dictated the rest of the design, possibly leading to inefficiencies. It certainly would’ve tied the hands of designers bent on creating an original statement.
Any new building should be seen as an enhancement, as a step forward, for both the users and the streetscape. Any building that replaces one that was seen to make a contribution to its surroundings carries a special burden.
Rather than pointing the finger at VCAT, Melbourne City Council would be better advised reviewing how well its processes for encouraging the construction of interesting and memorable buildings operate. It might examine closely what incentives and disincentives exist for developers to produce exemplary architecture and how well they work in practice.
For its part, the University could put some effort into marketing the virtues of the replacement building – surely there must be some delights in the proposal that we simply don’t know about? Please, at least try to sell it to us!
I’ll revisit this subject shortly, because it touches on some important issues about how we value buildings for preservation and who wins and who loses.